Category Archives: Education

German Schools, American Schools: 12 Key Differences

Ah, the hot-button topic of education…and the endless discussions of what is and what should be. The trend out of the States now seems to be lavishing praise on the utopian education system in Finland while throwing fifty shades of shade at the education-trend-of the-minute known as Common Core (I am supposed to capitalize that, right?)
Well, can’t help you there, folks. C.C. arrived on the scene after I left, and I don’t live anywhere near Scandanavia. What I can do is offer a comparison / contrast of school systems in the US and Germany– based on my experiences as a student and later guidance counselor in the former, and as a parent of school children in the latter– on a selected smattering of aspects. No “betters” and “worses”, only differences.

first day of school
First day of first grade (“Einschulung”) means one thing…little peanuts hobbling around with structured backpacks (“Schulranzen”) and a cone full of celebratory goodies (“Schultuete”)

1. Security:
In Germany, there are generally speaking far fewer obstacles to entering a school building. While secondary entrances/exits do tend to be locked, main entrances remain open and unmonitored throughout the day. One time, when my son forgot his mid-morning snack at home, I brought it to him, expecting to hand it over to school personnel for delivery to his classroom. Instead, when I explained to  the secretary why I was there, she told me I should bring it to the classroom myself. Much to my boy’s embarrassment, I did just that. Likewise, I have stopped into my daughter’s school a few times to relay various messages, again with barely a sideways glance from anyone else.
Thanks to the input of various parents of schoolchildren in the US, I have learned that, at a minimum, visitors must be buzzed into the building and announce themselves at the office. More urban schools have metal detectors and security presence. Lockdown drills occur at regular intervals, much like fire drills.

2. Freedom of student movement
Somewhat related to the first point, students at both the elementary and secondary level can visit the loo without bureaucracy in Germany. They are, of course, expected to return promptly and will get in trouble if they don’t, along the lines of having to write a “Strafarbeit” (i.e., “I will not linger in the loo” x 50), or at the secondary level having the infraction reflected in the class participation grade.
Although I cannot speak for how every school handles restroom visits in U.S. schools, I can say I remember being allowed to use the facilities simply with verbal permission in the elementary school. Ironically, the older we got, the more tightly controlled restroom visits were; in junior and senior high there was no roaming the halls–for potty breaks or otherwise–without a signed “pass”

3. Transportation to / from school
No car drop-off and pick-up lines here in Germany; most kids come to school in walking or bike groups. Secondary school kids who are attending a school outside their town of residence rely on normal public transportation (students are not assigned to secondary school according to district, another difference to the US, but man is this post starting to get wordy)

differences
No school premesis is complete without a generous bike parking lot.

4. Helicopter parenting more discouraged
One major area where schools in Germany appear to be more successful than those in the U.S. is on the topic of handling so-called helicopter parents. When I worked as a school counselor in the States, parents were much more heavily involved in and informed about the details (and frankly, sometimes the minutiae) of their children’s academic endeavors. My experience with my own children here in Germany is that a higher degree of independence from parents is expected from students; starting in the secondary school, parental involvement in schoolwork is explicitly discouraged. This serves the purpose of helping students to develop a more realistic sense of their own abilities.

5. Tougher grading
On a related note, giving kids a realistic sense of their abilities means not doling out “A’s” as frequently as teachers tend to in the States. The grading scale in Germany is 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, etc.; students here are quite happy with 2s and 3s; the top note is truly reserved for work of extraordinary quality.

6. More class cancellations
Something I really have to get used to here is Germany is the routineness of “Kursausfaelle”, or a class canceled for whatever reason on a given day. At the elementary school level, students will be redistributed to other parallel classes, but starting in secondary school, students may well find themselves with extra free time if the canceled class falls at the first or last periods. All mid-day classes will meet with a substitute teacher (who may or may not teach a lesson in the subject matter at hand).
Starting in grade 11, students may leave the premesis when a class is cancelled and return for the next period.

7. Separation after grade four
In Germany, elementary school spans grades one through four. Secondary schools run from grades five through ten or five through twelve (or thirteen), depending on which type of school you are attending.  University-bound students go to Gymnasium and complete comprehensive end exams in either grade 12 or 13. Students who are working toward vocations that do not require a university degree go to Realschule, which ends at grade ten. There are a few chances throughout a child’s school career to move between schools.
Other school models exist as well, such as the “Gesamtschule”, where students of all academic levels attend the same school (like the American high school), Walldorf and/or Montessori schools, and private parochial schools.

First day of secondary school
Grade 5 is a new beginning for school students, who move on to one of 2-3 forms of secondary school. No school cones full of goodies this time around!

8. Nine grades in one building
This type of school structure leads to the amusing phenomenon of students ranging from early tweens to young adults attending the same school. They are, of course, grouped together by grade level.

9. Much less mainstreaming
Having worked as a school counselor who sat in on many, many Individual Education Plan meetings, I can say that the United States is quite a bit more progressive in accommodating students with a constellation a special learning needs. There are signs of Germany catching up to a limited extent on this front, but the concept of “the least restrictive environment” appears not to be nearly the mandate here that it is in the States.

10. Shorter school day
The first grade school day runs from 8 a.m.-12 p.m.; after this it is gradually extended to 1 p.m. Students then take their lunch at home, where they also finish homework and move on to afternoon extracurricular activities. Many schools now have “all day” (generally till about 4 p.m.) programs of various models. In some states, these are free of charge, in others, they are not. In secondary schools, kids can join an array of school-run clubs; just don’t expect competitive sports to be amongst them. These are organized by various community sports clubs that have no connection to the school.
In grades eleven, twelve and thirteen, students have academic classes throughout the day, with breaks in between classes.

q-first-day-of-school
Both our kiddos attended “Ganztagschule”, a cost-free offering from the school that extends the day till 4 p.m. The program includes a warm lunch (which we do pay for), homework time and a variety of activities.

 

11. Distribution of school holidays
The difference here between American and German schools is that in Germany, school holidays are distributed more evenly throughout the school year. This surely has led to the (mis)perception that we are constantly on vacation, but I digress. Consistent among all German states is that the summer holiday is six weeks. The start and end dates are staggered from state to state to avoid mass overcrowdings of German highways and airports accomodating vacationers.
Depending on your (German) state, Fall holidays will be either one or two weeks and fall (ha!) somewhere between mid- to late-October. Winter break is two weeks, “Fasching” break–falling anywhere from early February to mid-March, depending on the year, usually scores school kids two days off on a Monday and Tuesday. Following this comes spring break, falling to encompass the Easter holiday. Again, depending on your state, this will be one or two weeks. May and June include a smattering of traditional church holidays with funny names that result in a string of 3-4 day weekends.
The total number of 5-day weeks German kids are in school ranges by state between 37-41 (for reference, a 180 day, 5-day-a-week school year is 36 weeks).

12. Homecoming means dragging your fanny from school back to where your bread is buttered, and not much more
For better or worse (pssst…my dirty little secret: Team Better), school in Germany is for classes and perhaps an extracurricular club or two (which meet once a week) and not much more. Once the academic portion of the program is over, the non-school dimension of life kicks in–community clubs (“Vereine”) or privately-run organizations (like dance schools, etc.) take the lead here. Perhaps this reflects the overall cultural proclivity of Germans to separate work from private spheres. Here you can find a comprehensive list of “Verein” offerings in Speyer alone (where I live). Vereine will often organize activities such as holiday parties, outings, dinners, dances, parade marchings, etc….i.e., the types of things schools (or school groups) take care of in the USA. Mascots are part of sports clubs, not of schools, in Germany. The closest thing German schools have to Prom is a “Graduation Ball”.  My understanding is that the entire class attends date-free, and since students at that point are of legal beer and wine age, the kegs do flow. I’ll tell you all about it when we actually get to that point.

There are other topics I could touch on here, such as the use / misuse of standardized testing, teacher accountability and homeschooling (which is not practiced here in Germany), but these warrant posts unto themselves, and I need to gather more information on both ends before I wade into such potentially touchy territory.

Whew…loooong post! This could easily fill an intercultural seminar for educators, but for now it’s Saturday and school’s out for the weekend!

 

Common Mistakes Expats Make…

Are you an American with a relocation to Germany in your future, or a German heading to the USA? Learn some pitfalls to avoid so that your adaptation to the new surroundings go as smoothly as possible. Below are some mistakes that are surprisingly easy to make (and in NO WAY based on any kind of personal experience *clears throat*)

Airplane engine
Banishing the kids to engine seats is not the *only* mistake you can make when relocating overseas!

Mistake #1: Failing to learn the language of your new country

Hindsight is always 20/20.

My mother was born in Austria and tried off and on throughout our childhood to speak German with my sister and me. Of course, I rebuffed her. I took a couple of years of German here and there in high school to round out my elective course load and again in the year before moving to—guess where!

But, as I learned quickly, a little bit of textbook work does not even begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know to communicate in a foreign language. For one thing, even if you learn some useful phrases rotely, there’s still the pesky business of being able to decipher the response to your much-rehearsed statement / question.

Alas, I am here to confirm what can only be filed under „duh“: you should take every opportunity in advance to learn the language of your new country, and continue learning diligently after your arrival. Yes, grammar and vocabulary memorization is important, but also listen to and speak the language (find a conversation partner, watch movies, television, etc.). If you’re doing it right, you should feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day.

Bottom line: no magic here. There is no way around the baby steps, embarassing mistakes, non-sequiter responses to questions you misunderstood, completely unintentional brushoffs and/or insults that all go with the territory. Even with diligence, your first year or 16 (ahem) will be full of moments where you will convince yourself and everyone around you that your I.Q. is half of what it actually is. Which is why it is important not to make…

Mistake #2: Leaving your sense of humor behind.

Yes, maybe you need to re-learn how to drive, fine-tune your table manners, train yourself anew on when and where and even–gasp–how to shop. Even in cultures as ostensibly similar as the USA and Germany, you will have more than your share of deer-in-headlight moments (bonus points if you actually stand around somewhere looking as agape as you feel.) German expats in the US and US expats in Germany will have to contend with new systems of sizes, measurements and currency. Until / unless you stick around long enough for the local units to become intuitive, you will need to go Zen with re-calculating while trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. Also knowing where to find everyday items (hint: no OTC meds at drug stores in Germany!) is on a steep learning curve. Have a laugh at the absurdity of it all and commit to viewing your new daily routines as an adventure.

Mistake #3: Arriving with a cliché-filled worldview

Don’t arrive in your new country with a mindset full of media-driven clichés or what you experienced at Disney World once.
Both the USA and Germany have many diverse regions with their own characteristics and specialties. Just as not all Americans are hamburger-chompin’ cowboys, not all Germans are drinking beer from a „Stein“ while eating sauerkraut and sausages while trying not to drip on their Lederhosen.

Okay, I am exaggerating. But, when consuming news about another country / region, it’s well worth remembering that news is highly selective and not entirely without an agenda. Reading an online version of a respected newspaper from the US media if you are in Germany or vice versa will go some ways in giving you a broader picture of what’s really capturing the nation’s attention (if you’re still brushing up on your German, try the English language version of the news magazine Spiegel Online or The Local Germany).

Mistake #4: Sticking to your own

Don’t only hang around with fellow expats. The obvious reason for this is that you will severely cutail your language learning progress if you stay in your native language. Additionally, local friends and acquaintances will be key in helping you learn various aspects of the culture by bringing you into the fold for celebrations, holidays, casual get-togethers, etc. Take the opportunity to listen to what people talk about, keep your ears and eyes open for special expressions, gestures, manners. What do folks find funny? What do they complain about? What are sore subjects best avoided? Observe, observe, observe. Become an insider and your adaptation rate will skyrocket.

That said, I empathize with the need to have conversations in your native tongue. It is totally OK to sniff around for fellow expats or international crowds whose lingua franca is English and /or German. The thing to remember is to keep communication within these circles positive, adventurous and open-minded. A group full of Debbie Downers who mainly complain about how the new home is not the old home will drag your expat experience into a much darker place than it needs to be. Keep it positive and supportive!

What other nuggets of wisdom do YOU have to share?

A great way to learn and exhange best practices, things to avoid and how to leverage cultural differences for maximum advantage is to book an intercultural training. Have fun while gearing up a truly global mindset!

Field Report #2: Spring Break, USA

Spring Break in the USA…Florida beaches, wet t-shirt contests, wild debauchery, fun in the sun.

Well…not exactly, when you’re 20+ years out of college and travelling with your family of four in tow. Then Spring Break moves northward to that great state for lovers…Virginia. Which also has a beach. Whose skies are sunny but whose air is still cool-breezy and water still winter-chilled in the first days of spring. Not a booze cruise in sight.

Fortunately, with Colonial Williamsburg and suburban Washington, D.C. also on the itinerary, we were not doomed to spending our entire vacation figuring out what to do at the beach when credible beach weather is still about two months away.

In addition to visiting with too-rarely-seen family, I as always used the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the sights, sounds and rhythms of life in the U.S., paying close attention to where and how they differ from those in Germany.

This time around, I am going to let images do the talking for me. (Well, wordy captions will do the talking as well.) Wherever I experienced something typical of my beloved homeland, I clicked away. So, without further ado, I present a short and by-no-means-exhaustive list of “Yaaass, I’m back in the U.S.” images:

This is consistently one of my first food purchases when I'm back in the States. Why, oh why has this not caught on in Germany? Germans, feel the magic of chocolate peanut butter ice cream!!!
This is consistently one of my first food purchases when I’m back in the States. Why, oh why has this not caught on in Germany? Germans, feel the magic of chocolate peanut butter ice cream!!! (Picture bonus: there’s a reference to those funky and oh-so-American quarts and ounces!)
No one in the world does cake frosting like American supermarket bakeries. Just be sure you have a place to lie down once you fall into a sugar coma!
No one in the world does cake frosting like American supermarket bakeries. Just be sure you have a place to lie down once you fall into a sugar coma!
Okay Germans, what are these? Anyone...anyone? Why they are hush puppies and cornmeal muffins, staples of southern American restaurants. Lick those fingers!
Okay Germans, what are these? Anyone…anyone? Why it’s a cornmeal muffin and its deep-fried cousin, the hush puppy. Both are side dish staples of southern American restaurants. Lick those fingers!
WAIT! Before licking those fingers, make sure you sanitize them! Yes, we Americans are comparatively germ-o-phobic (no, that is not a reference to a fear of Germans!)
WAIT! Before licking those fingers, make sure you sanitize them! Yes, we Americans are comparatively germ-o-phobic (no, that is not a reference to a fear of Germans!). We love us some sanitizing wipes (and hand gels, and soaps, and sprays, etc., etc.)!
Interestingly, for all our germophobia, we are zen with that most communial of thirst quenching stations...the public drinking water fountain. Germans, WHY DON'T WE HAVE THESE? So much easier than schlepping around a water bottle!
Interestingly, for all our germophobia, we are Zen with that most communal of thirst quenching stations…the public drinking water fountain. Germans, WHY DON’T WE HAVE THESE? So much easier than schlepping around a water bottle!
In America, everything is awesome!!! Including household cleaning products that sanitize!
In America, everything is awesome!!! Including household cleaning products!
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Service with a name and a smile. “Kelly”, bless her heart, accomodating my husband’s allergies (is that a wink-y?)
Americans in Europe and Europeans in America have one thing in common: they spend half their vacation re-calibrating their sense of dimension. Extra large coffee, anyone?
Americans in Europe and Europeans in America have one thing in common: they spend half their vacation re-calibrating their sense of dimension. Extra large coffee, anyone?
I was determined to have my shaggy-haired son cut and coiffed at a good ol' American barber shop. No frills, no fuss, no appointments.
I was determined to have my shaggy-haired son cut and coiffed at a good ol’ American barber shop. No frills, no fuss, no appointments.
I couldn't resist, after my last blog post about we Americans and our disposable flatware. But, we're upping our game...we make it *look* real!
I couldn’t resist, after my last blog post about we Americans and our disposable flatware. But, we’re upping our game…we make it *look* real!
You have been duly warned: in the States, we are, um, generous with warning notices.
You have been duly warned: in the States, we are, um, generous with warning notices.

And, it wouldn’t be the USA without patriotism:

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On private homes, office buildings and elsewhere, Old Glory is almost always in sight. Pop quiz for the Europeans: how many stars and stripes does the American flag contain, and what do they stand for?
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In the U.S., it is common to see parking spaces reserved for military veterans, who hold a place of high esteem amongst the American population.

For the German traveller in the United States: have a bout of homesickness? We’ve got you covered:

You even need a coin for the shopping cart! But sorry: still can't help you with German bread!
You even need a coin for the shopping cart! But sorry: still can’t help you with German bread.
We'll even set you up on a "Rhine" river cruise!
We’ll even set you up on a “Rhine” river cruise! (running till 6:00 pm, a.k.a. 18:00)

Want to know the deeper cultural significance behind the images above? Book an intercultural training and you’ll be in the know!

 

 

Out with the Bachelor’s Degree, in with the Apprenticeship!

Last week during one of my trainings, I complimented a woman on her nearly-flawless English. She related how she had lived in the U.S. for ten years while married to her military husband. As she talked about her experiences and impressions from her time there, she mentioned that she had held several jobs over the decade, from shopping cart attendant to cashier tJob Trainingo dialysis administrator.

Wait….what?! The first two seem to fit together, but where did the dialysis administration come in?

She went on to say that she had undergone a six week training program…and then was sent out „on the field“. The other Germans in the group were pretty shocked. Dialysis administration here would be part of a more comprehensive and thorough medical assistant training apprenticeship that would take at least a couple of years. Sticking real patients with real (and long!) needles and other medical procedures would require much more in-depth training.

This anecdote highlights the significant difference in how Germany and America approach education and job training. In America, school students for the most part are kept together under one roof (although there are varying levels of the core classes). At most, students training for a vocation do a half day for up to three years at a vocational-technical school while attending their high school the other half of the day for their core academic courses. The training is not typically done in connection with any company looking to groom its next group of skilled company workers.

In contrast, depending on which path a school student chooses (starting in the 5th grade), more vocationally-inclined school students can attend a Realschule until grade 10; after this, they apply to a company or public sector office for an apprenticeship (Ausbildungsplatz). During the two- to three-and-a-half year period, they take theory classes related to the vocation for part of the week, and work at the company the other part. By the time the apprenticeship is over, the company has a highly trained worker who can integrate seamlessly into the full-time work environment. Oh, and apprenticeships are paid!

Recently, the U.S. federal government, in cooperation with American-based German companies and community colleges, has started introducing German-style dual-program apprenticeships in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration pledged $100 million to apprenticeship programs, with more federal funds planned in the years to come. It is an expensive proposition, that much is certain. If the program expands on a larger scale, it will surely require philosophical and structural changes within the participating companies and community colleges, not to mention a change in the Bachelor’s-degree-is-the-best-way mindset of high school students and their families.

Ultimately, the investment will be worth it if it helps the United States turn out the next generation of workers equipped with the most up-to-date skill sets needed in a rapidly evolving marketplace. To send these freshly-minted apprenticeship graduates into the world without the albatross of crushing student loan debt is a significant bonus. The time for a dual-program apprenticeship system has arrived for the United States. Now will we embrace it?

Check out my intercultural training to learn more about the differences between the U.S. and Germany.